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Scientists push innovation frontier as part of $333-million investment

Alpha-g and TREx research projects, led by University of Calgary, to receive funding boost from federal government
May 29, 2015
Research by Robert Thompson, left, and Eric Donovan, both professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and their teams will benefit from funding announced Friday by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Research by Robert Thompson, left, and Eric Donovan, both professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and their teams will benefit from funding announced Friday by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

With news earlier today of a $333-million boost to research in Canada, Gilles Patry, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, emphasized the importance of state-of-the-art infrastructure to ensure Canada takes its place in leading across the rapidly advancing frontiers of science and technology.

“In today’s highly competitive research environment, the nation’s researchers need access to the best tools and facilities that will make them stand out," said Patry. "The Innovation Fund puts them on a path to achieve prominence in the global research enterprise while ensuring their results deliver tangible benefits to Canadians.”

UCalgary’s part in this science and technology push has researchers leading and collaborating on seven major projects, ranging from deepening our understanding of our physical reality at the level of antimatter with a team at CERN, to near-Earth space monitoring and sensor technologies for better environmental monitoring and management.

“This important funding by the Government of Canada has been strategically invested in areas where the need is greatest and Canada is best positioned to lead,” notes Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). "The University of Calgary is proud to support our outstanding research leaders, such as Eric Donovan and Robert Thompson and their teams, to build world-class facilities and tools that will push Canada’s research strategies forward on the international stage.”

$6,134,000 for ALPHA-g project in antimatter physics, led by Robert Thompson (Physics)

Science fiction has had a long fascination with the idea of antimatter — imaginatively powering Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise and serving as the apocalyptic payload in the bomb in Angels and Demons. But in the past few decades, elusive antimatter has become more than fiction. Today, scientists have not only proven its existence, but the ALPHA Collaboration has been able to manufacture and store antihydrogen, the antimatter counterpart of the simplest atom, long enough for scientists to study it.

ALPHA, a world-leading international collaboration operating at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, currently operates its second generation ALPHA-2 apparatus to study antimatter, which mirrors the atoms and molecules that we are made of. "CFI funding will enable the creation of our third system, ALPHA-g, which will significantly enhance our ability to pursue the question, Does antimatter look the same as matter, both optically and gravitationally?” explains Robert Thompson, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This is a truly fortuitous timing for this work as 2015 has been declared the International Year of Light, and we will be using light to probe antimatter to test the foundations of physics.”

This work is set to test the very foundations of physics and the assumptions upon which it’s based — applying advanced technologies in the fields of cryogenics, plasma, laser manipulation, and particle detection. This highly complex field will also equip uniquely qualified scientific and technical trainees with skills in digital and analog electronics; control, data acquisition, and data analysis computing; cryogenics; magnetometry; laser and optical sciences; and extreme wavelength spectroscopy.

“ALPHA-g will enhance the profile of science and science literacy in Alberta, and provide a strong and enduring link between Alberta and CERN," says Thompson. "The ALPHA-g collaboration also includes key partners such as Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, and York University.”  Other key partners include TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, and the University of Victoria.

$2,850,653 for the Transition Region Explorer project, led by Eric Donovan (Physics)

The Transition Region Explorer (TREx), a global space science and upper atmospheric exploration project, will place a massive ground-based network of sophisticated optical and radio instruments across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories. While providing the most comprehensive multi-scale observations of the aurora ever obtained, the images will be available in real-time on the Web, allowing scientists to understand how space weather affects Earth's atmosphere.

“As a sensor web, TREx will autonomously change its own operating modes in near-real-time in response to the conditions that it senses. This will be a world first for space physics, a pathfinder for large, distributed, yet inexpensive networks of sensors of any type and an incubator for new HQP with expertise in sensor webs and all of the associated ICT,” says Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Providing the most comprehensive multi-scale observations of the aurora ever obtained, the images will carry rich insights into how the sun interacts with earth’s upper atmosphere to aid in our understanding of the underlying dynamics of climate change  — while also informing the development of new techniques for enhancing the accuracy of global positioning systems. Donovan points out “TREx will provide exciting stand-alone data, and will leverage partnerships with major international space missions.” The new optical and radio technologies that will be developed in this project will also form the basis of new products for Canadian industry — providing the potential to change the game in multiple fields.

The TREx team includes researchers at the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, and Athabasca University, and from institutions across Canada and around the world. In broadening the impacts of this important area of research for earth and space monitoring, TREx will draw together these partners to transform how space scientists are trained and position Canada as a leader in the burgeoning field of discovery and technology development.

Other UCalgary collaborations supported through the Innovation Fund include projects such as:

  • Explore new approaches for mitigating crude oil spills in Arctic waters
  • New partnerships with the Canadian Light Source
  • Targeted therapeutics for some of the deadliest known cancers
  • Collaborating to push up the production of rare isotopes for the physical and health sciences
  • Participating in a nation-wide network of 800 researchers at 32 institutions to tackle the most advanced microsystems engineering problems.